When Lashawn Gee attended a webinar for young professional women and was asked by the moderator to name the top tool she wanted to add to her workplace toolbox, she didn’t need long to answer. Lashawn, an educator based in Atlanta, GA, flashed a smile across the screen as if she had been waiting for this question to come. Then, she announced to the group, “Courage. I’d like to add courage to my toolbox.”
That smile was different than the fabricated one she was used to wearing to work to cover up what she said was a growing level of agitation for the snarky, dismissive way her boss talked to her. But, Lashawn, like many young women, had seldomly summoned personal courage to speak up about disrespectful remarks and other workplace offenses out of fear of retaliation, humiliation and judgement.
Through my work of helping young leaders activate personal courage to unlock their potential, I’ve discovered courage is a choice to face a risk for a worthy purpose. Courage is also a process with many working parts. Here are five everyday habits I advise young women to practice to help build courage and add it to their toolbox.
Entertain your discomfort.
If there’s one thing you felt the last time you tried to summon personal courage, it was likely discomfort in the form of heart palpitations, butterfly swarms in the gut or paranoia that everyone around was throwing their fiercest side-eye in your direction. Courage, by nature, is unconventional and uncomfortable. This makes lacing up your vintage combat boots and learning how to tame discomfort critically important to confronting a risk or challenge, and one of the best ways to start that learning process is to seize everyday opportunities to be uncomfortable.
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On any given day, you may say the wrong thing to a friend who needed your support or show up to a virtual meeting unprepared. It happens. While your knee-jerk reaction may be to resolve the tension as fast as you feel it, press the pause button instead. Try acknowledging the discomfort without judging it. Avoid labeling it as good or bad and allow yourself to feel it for what it is. When you enable yourself to settle into discomfort, you can begin to disarm it. The more reps you put into getting well-acquainted with discomfort the better you will prepare yourself to deal with it when trying to act courageously at work and beyond.
Remind yourself of your strengths.
Courage likes to show up for young women who are confident — who recognize the unique skills, strengths and talents they’re made of. In fact, researchers say confidence is the determining factor in how long a person will persevere through a challenge. Remembering your goodness, however, can take a bit of work since your brain is wired for negativity.
Creating a daily habit to take inventory of your fierceness can be a good way to keep your sense of personal power and to have it quickly accessible when you need it to confront a challenge. If you want to get fancy, you can consider writing down your unique skills, strengths and talents and keeping them in a designated box so you can easily and repeatedly review how great you are.
Many young women who try to put a courageous step forward often get stuck on the risks. What if I’m fired for speaking up? What if I get pushed out of projects? What if I fall flat on my face? Risks are central to courage, so it’s important that you know how to appropriately evaluate them when preparing to take courageous action. A first step in evaluating risks is understanding that there are two sides to consider: the risk of taking action and the risk of not taking action. On the one hand, you could experience failure, humiliation or rejection. And, on the other hand, you could experience regret, stunted growth and lack of progression. Not all risks are created equal. Understanding what’s really at stake is necessary to making courageous decisions.
As a way to up-level your ability to evaluate risk, you can make a habit out of appraising potential outcomes in low-stakes environments, like trying a new recipe or a new hairstyle.
Review your values.
When young women want to conjure their courage at work to speak up, stand out and stay true to themselves, it’s critical that their motivation for doing so aligns with their internal values. The reason why is because the fear associated with those actions are too strong and convincing to be overcome by a motivation that is primarily external. Courage comes out to play when a clear, worthy purpose for action has been defined and anchored to your values. Values-driven motivations can help remind you why you decided, in the first place, to take a risk and can help you remain persistent when the unexpected occurs.
If you are not clear on your personal values, you can find a list of values online and pay attention to the ones that spark an internal connection. Once you’ve circled or written down the values you feel drawn to, you can review your list and trim it down to the top two to three values you want to guide your behaviors and decisions.
Make your own decisions.
Courage requires young women to exercise your right to choose — to say yes, to say no, to let go, and to push forward. But, the choice, which never seems easy to make, becomes increasingly difficult if you haven’t built up the capacity to make your own decisions. Dozens of small-scale opportunities to practice choosing for yourself surface throughout a day but are often overlooked as minor and delegated to someone else. You may consider it inconsequential to leave a decision about what you should wear to your partner or what color you should paint your nails to a friend. But, these small moments of deciding are like the bottom layer of a three-tier birthday cake. They support and reinforce confidence in your judgement. Passing them off leaves you with fewer foundational experiences you can refer to and rely on when you’re faced with more important decisions.
When young women learn to embrace discomfort, remind themselves of their strengths, evaluate risks, review their values and make their own decisions, they will be well on their way to building courage and creating space to add it to their toolbox.
Candace Doby is a speaker, author and coach who works with universities and organizations to help young leaders activate personal courage to speak up, stand out, and stay true to themselves. When she’s not speaking, she working on new designs for her greeting card and gift company, Pep Talker.